Ecokat going viral a potential positive

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Once I got over the sting of embarrassment, the fear set in. K-State had created a nation-wide mascot sensation, killed her off and successfully hid the body.

How am I supposed to trust K-State to tell me the truth about crime statistics, NCAA rules or the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility when they can’t deal with the heat over an unfortunately dressed mascot?

EcoKat, according to a story released Aug. 22 by K-State Communications and Marketing, was going to “show the community how to be more environmentally conscious through appearances, promotional events and a series of online Webisodes. The videos — to be available in late August — and corresponding website can be found at k-state.edu/ecokat.”

Those videos are gone. Any mention of EcoKat on K-State’s website is gone. The K-State senior who played the role of EcoKat is alive and well, but out of a job.

According to the Collegian, Jeff Morris, vice president for communications and marketing, said the decision to remove EcoKat from the page was made due to the nature of the tweets and comments being made about her, adding that the recent scrutiny of EcoKat has detracted from her goal to promote K-State in the Take Charge Challenge.

Except for the webpage listing the places K-State has been mentioned in the media. Thanks to EcoKat, K-State was talked about by the Huffington Post (via the Kansas City Star), Fox News, the Washington Monthly, The Blaze, Pitch Weekly, The College Fix, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, The PJ Tatler and the Emporia Gazette.

On Aug. 31, EcoKat became an internet sensation — #ecokat was trending nationwide on Twitter, national sports radio shows were talking about “K-State’s crusader of conservation” and regional newspapers were jumping on the story of the “fanatic of fluorescent light bulbs” for evening web updates and morning print editions.

But did K-State officials rejoice at becoming a viral marketer’s dream? No. Within hours of the Twitter trend, K-State removed the news release about EcoKat from the website. By the next morning, the videos were gone and all mention of EcoKat was missing.

Rumor had it that a parent of a current student called the president and said if EcoKat didn’t go away, they were going to come and pull their student from K-State. Really? Fine, please come pick up your kid. We don’t want you or them here. You’re flipping out about a mascot.

Some of the coverage was positive. The Pitch in Kansas City pointed out that K-State was the only public university in Kansas to make the Princeton Review’s “Guide to Green Colleges” in 2011 in their story, “K-State introduces EcoKat, a human-cat hybrid that will save the planet.” The EcoKat video is still up at the Pitch website, if you’re interested.

But yeah, most of it was not positive.

There are a few lessons to be learned here.

No. 1: If you are going to try and roll out a cool mascot, then you have to know how to be cool. Why not roll this into a Web Redemption on Tosh.0?

And Mr. Morris, I want to give you a bit of reading from the Harvard Business Review, May 2007. It’s an article titled “Viral Marketing for the Real World” by Duncan J. Watts and Jonah Peretti.

The article talks about how hard it is to get a message to go viral and how incredibly successful viral marketing is.

“Reliably designing messages to exhibit viral properties is extremely difficult, it turns out, as is predicting which particular individuals will be responsible for spreading them,” the article claims.

“The standard viral-marketing model is based on an analogy with the spread of infectious disease. … There is an important flaw in the epidemic analogy, however: Companies, unlike diseases, can use standard advertising methods to create potentially enormous seeds. … By providing social-sharing tools that are easy to use, moreover, marketers can reliably increase the reproduction rate of their message.”

So at this point, since it’s Harvard, they do some serious math that pretty much works out to this: companies can spread information faster than a disease can spread.

K-State officials not only wasted this once-in-a-lifetime viral marketing opportunity, but they have also proved you shouldn’t trust them with information or disease.

If K-State is really going to be one of the nation’s top-50 public research universities, we have to learn to play the marketing game a lot better.

Mary Renee Shirk is a graduate student in journalism. Please send all comments to opinion@spub.ksu.edu

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